I couldn’t do it. I wanted to like this book so much! In fact, I think I should just send you over to Raych’s review of Popular Crime, because I’m about to repeat everything she said, but about a different book. It’s funny how that works.
Mañana Forever? had a great pull for me. I was excited about getting to know “Mexico and the Mexicans” better; I like Mexico and the Mexicans, and I think they’re as apt as any country-and-its-people to make good book-fodder. The first bad sign was the preface, which dragged on and on in academic-speak, which rather goes against the impression I got (from product descriptions) that this books was written for Regular People. It also purported to outline the book’s goal, but instead went round in circles, as if still deciding what that goal might be. It listed and outlined the chapters, then told an anecdote involving H1N1 (the “swine flu”), and then GO chapter one. I began the book frustrated by the preface but ready to move on into the good stuff.
The first chapter nearly killed me. I like the idea of Nancy Pearl’s Rule of 50, but I couldn’t do it. I was too frustrated by chapter 1, which ends on page 33. (Ah, but the preface was 15. Do I get to claim 48 pages? That should be close enough. Really, two pages weren’t going to convince me. I promise.) Castaneda is Mexican-American himself, but just as I don’t belong to the camp that feels it’s okay for black people to call each other the n-word, I didn’t take to the negative lean of this chapter. It’s entitled “Why Mexicans Are Lousy at Soccer and Don’t Like Skyscrapers,” and the answer is, because they’re staunch individualists, always, no exception. Thus, no teamwork (soccer) and no sharing (apartment buildings – which aren’t necessarily synonymous with skyscrapers in my head, but whatever). He’s a bit critical, but more outrageously, he’s pretty vague in his justifications for his argument. When he completely lost me, though, was with math. Excuse me for holding an author of nonfiction (and an established academic, professor, PhD, and former foreign minister, in his third book) to this kind of standard, but. I offer you this sentence.
Out of a total of roughly 1 million homes delivered between 2004 and 2008, 800,000, or 97%, included one or two dwellings per plot, whereas only 32,000, or 3%, were vertical, multifamily homes, or in plain English, apartment buildings or ‘projects.’
1 million = 1,000,000. 800,000 is very easily divided into this number. I see 8 out of 10, is what I see. I’m no math major, but I’m pretty sure that 800,000 out of 1,000,000 is NOT 97%. I’m pretty sure that’s 80%. He lost me there, and lost me more in the next sentence, in which he says x over y “takes up much more space and thus more square feet.” After this, it was all I could do to not take out a red pen and start circling things. (This is a library book.) Rugged individualism is “often nearly always” self-sacrificial and self-destructive, and the chapter closes with this:
The individualism we have rapidly portrayed and criticized is just one of the multiple traits, though perhaps the most important one, that has become no longer just an obstacle, but an insurmountable hurdle to the country’s progress, as well as the heart of its past glory and unending fascination for the foreign regard.
No longer just an obstacle, but a hurdle! Gasp! No, Castaneda, you did not “rapidly” portray. These were the most difficult 33 pages I’ve read in recent memory. Sentences like this one required that I reread; I kept losing my place. This is the kind of writing I’m willing to be pretty forgiving of in galley copies (you know, pre-publication, don’t-quote-from-this-copy, still to be edited), but this isn’t a galley. I’m not sure if you should fire your editor, or if s/he should fire you. You have failed to grasp a reader who was eager to be grasped. The End.